Yes, You Can: Start Your Kids in Snowsports

Looking to get your young children involved in the winter activities you love? Here we offer simple tips to foster a love of cross-country and alpine skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding in youngsters.

By Melynda Harrison

Kicking and gliding past snow-laden trees and across frozen ponds; schussing through fresh powder on a blue bird sky day; breathing hard as you tromp upslope after a fresh snowfall—it’s hard to imagine winter without nivean outings. Newer parents may be worried they’ll have to give up some of these delights, but by introducing children to winter activities the whole family can enjoy a day in the snow.

For All Sports
• Make it fun and keep your expectations low. All children develop at a different rate. Like crawling and talking, your child will be ready to ski or board at a different age then your friends’ kids.
• Try on equipment at home. Not only do you want to be sure everything fits properly, but it adds a little familiarity to a new experience on the snow. Practice getting in and out of skis or a snowboard.
• The most important thing you can do is get your brood out into the snow for short (maybe twenty to forty minute) excursions where they can learn to be comfortable, have fun and gain experience in the snow.

Nordic Skiing

Rather than focusing on technique with new Nordic skiers, focus on fun. Shannon Nickerson taught her three year old, Rose, how to cross country ski in Stowe, Vermont. “I really didn’t tell her much; I just kind of threw her on the skis and let her have at it.” By the time Rose was five she was ready for a little instruction. “That’s when we started having her focus on transferring her weight from one ski to the other, and extending the glide.” This winter Nickerson plans to introduce Rose to her poles.

• Set children loose in a flat, open area to practice walking with skis on. Groomed Nordic Centers provide a level surface to get started.
• Playground games—played in the snow, with skis on—like “Red Light, Green Light”, “Follow the Leader” or “Simon Says” teach kids to turn, shuffle, slow and stop—without the boring drills.
• From walking they can transition to shuffling and then gliding, but don’t worry, most kids figure this out on their own.
• Let your child’s arms swing naturally.
• Leave the poles at home (they often hinder, more than help, children). Once your kid is competent on skis you can add poles.
• Children love the adventure of setting off across untrammeled snow. Having a destination (a cabin, lake, snowman building area) is a great way to motivate young ones to ski. As children get older, they will benefit from lessons or joining a youth ski league.
• As long as they are having fun with skis on, your lesson is a success.

Babies can be pulled in pulks, and as soon as they are decent walkers, toddlers can use waxless skis with universal bindings that fit onto their snow boots. Progress to a boot-binding system around age five with waxless skis until kids are at least eight or nine. At that point, they can stick with a waxless set-up, or if they are planning on racing or joining a league, they can transition to waxable boards.

Alpine Skiing
Jill Imsand, Big Sky Resort Ski Instructor and Children’s Chair for the Northern Rocky Mountain Division of Professional Ski Instructors of America, says kids can start skiing as early as two, “but it’s more about them being comfortable when it’s cold and sliding around than actually skiing.” By the age of four, many children will be ready to hit the bunny slopes.

Andrea Gambaro-Gunn, of Livingston, Montana, taught her sons Liam and Quinn to ski when they were three and two and a half. “We would carry them up a little hill and then run down to catch them. It was a serious workout for us.” After the boys had mastered the neighborhood hill, they moved onto the bunny slope at a nearby ski area.

• To get children used to riding the chairlift, ask the liftie to slow it down for loading and unloading. (Plan on lifting your child onto the seat—the chairlift is too high for them to sit on alone.)
• Start without poles, they just get in the way.
• Gambaro-Gunn used a harness specifically made for skiing with her little ones. Her boys skied in front of her and “they got used to traversing across the hill while I turned their bodies.”
• Next, Gambaro-Gunn slapped on an Edgie Wedgie, which holds the skis together in a snowplow position. “From there, I just held their hand until they could ski on their own.”
• Other techniques parents use include skiing backwards while holding their child’s hands and letting the child ski between their legs.

The hardest part about teaching kids to ski is getting past that fearlessness they seem to possess. “Quinn just wanted to go as fast as possible,” laughs Gambaro-Gunn. So let the kids have a blast for a couple years, then introduce poles and work on form.

As for gear, Imsand suggests buying used gear (Komperdell and Apple Rise Sports make skis for toddlers which can be used for cross-country and alpine skiing) or renting. Many shops rent kid-sized apparatuses for a season, which saves on expensive gear that won’t fit for long. Some places even rent helmets. Be sure to get equipment that fits, says Imsand, “buying too big, hinders kids’ ability,” and a too-large helmet won’t protect your child’s noggin.

Snowboarding
Snowboarding takes more strength and coordination than skiing, so children tend to start boarding at an older age than skiing. Irish National Snowboard Team member Jen Grace says her nephew started boarding at four. “There’s a skier’s bias that kids have to start on skis,” she laughs, “I would have said six is a good age to start snowboarding, but my nephew proves that wrong.”

• Find your child’s stance by having them put their feet together and lean forward as far as possible. Whichever foot they put forward to catch themselves should be at the front of the board.
• Tow your child around the yard or somewhere snowy to get the feel of sliding.
• Use the “parent lift” and cart the new snowboarder up a small hill. Run down a few feet and catch them. Extend the distance until they are comfortable enough to head to a ski resort.
• As with skiing, ask the liftie to slow the chairlift while you carry your child on and off. Only the front foot should be strapped in while riding the lift.
• After strapping in their other foot, have your child start with their snowboard perpendicular to a small slope. Help them stand up so they are looking down the slope.
• If you are fairly proficient on skis or a snowboard yourself, hold your child’s hand and instruct them to put their weight on their heels and point their toes just a little bit to start sliding down the hill. (You may need to do this in your boots!) They can pull back up on their toes to stop. Repeat this until they get the hang of coming to a stop.
• Next try a “falling leaf pattern”, again holding their hand. To begin sliding, tell your child to press down with the toes of their front foot. To stop sliding, pull back up with the same foot. After reaching the edge of the run, stop and press down with the toes of the other foot to start sliding in the other direction. Again, pull up to stop. Repeat this back and forth “falling leaf” pattern all the way to the bottom of the run.

To start the little one on a board plan to use ski boots and bindings (on a snowboard) until they are around seven-ish and their lower leg muscles develop. By eight years old your child will likely be ready for soft boots and regular strap bindings. Wrist guards and a helmet (in addition to the gear listed below) are essential. Snowboard equipment can often be rented for the season.

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What to wear and bring on winter adventures.
• Layers, layers, layers—as kids heat up and cool down, it’s essential to add and remove layers of clothing. Start with long johns (wool, silk or synthetic material), then add a mid-weight layer.
• Waterproof outer layer (pants and jacket)
• Hat
• Mittens that stay on and an extra pair for when the first set gets wet
• Gaitors—either built into snowpants or separate
• Sunscreen, sunglasses or goggles
• Helmets for downhill fun
• Snacks—trail mix, cheese and crackers, PB & J sandwich, energy bars, hot chocolate, anything that will provide quick carbohydrate calories along with some longer lasting fat and protein calories. Plus, it needs to be something your kids love and can eat with mittens on.
• Sled or pulk to tow little ones when they poop out.
• Change of clothes for the ride home
What not to wear
• Cotton next to the body—it just gets cold when wet from snow or sweat.

Women’s Adventure, January 2008

For more fun teaching kids to cross-country ski: 5 Ways to Make it Fun from Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies

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